Press briefing by Secretary Mattis enroute to PACOM

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


STAFF:  And, ladies and gentlemen, I think we're going to start on the record, just a couple of quick questions, and then the secretary's going to switch to off the record.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, thank you, first of all, for coming on the trip again.  And, as you know, we're heading west, okay?  At least we should be.  Got it on my map, here -- very detailed map, as you can see -- (Laughter.) -- top secret, right?  

But we're on our way out to PACOM -- PACOM's a priority theater -- and the Indo-Pacific.  We'll move from there, on to Singapore.

So, obviously, the first thing that comes to mind is, "What about DPRK and the negotiations, a summit?"  I would just tell you, they continue to be diplomatically led, as they have been, now, going back to when my -- I took my first trip out to -- my first trip out to the Pacific -- first trip in office, overseas.

And the diplomatic -- diplomats are meeting, continuing to meet, both at Panmunjom, and there's some folks already in Singapore.  These are handled diplomatically.  So, rather than getting it secondhand from me, you'll have to have your State Department press pool get more details so that you're getting updated by the people responsible, not by those of us on the outside of that.

I do have -- obviously, I spoke with the president as recently as yesterday on this.  And I maintain good communications across national security staff -- very, very close relations with Secretary Pompeo.  So -- but it's in their very capable hands.

We continue with the diplomatically led campaign, but also, aligned with the continuing U.N. Security Council resolutions, maintaining the pressure campaign that was put on -- put in place by the international community at the U.N.

The first stop we're going to have is going to be Hawaii, and that's for the Pacific Command change of command.  So I'm losing Admiral Harris from my ranks, and he's joining the State Department.

But -- but that's okay.  He's been a true naval leader, joint leader, and I'd even say, in that military diplomat role, he has also carried out that role very effectively, which is what brought the attention to him by the State Department, as they watched him in action.

The change of command there prefaces my trip, going further on to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, where I'll discuss America's Indo-Pacific framework for what we do out there, where we're going, that sort of thing.

I'll also talk a bit about the National Defense Strategy, since it prioritized the Pacific region.  So that also will be part of my -- my discussion there.

I think that the framework, our geographic position and the National Defense Strategy -- when you put all this together -- the framework coming out of National Security staff, the National Defense Strategy out of my staff, my organization, and geography -- five of our states, as you know, are Pacific Ocean coastlines, plus Guam and other territories, plus we have long, long relations with many countries out there -- our vision is very clear.  

It is very consistent over many administrations -- for a safe and secure, a prosperous and free Indo-Pacific region based on the shared principles that are aligned with international law.  

Those shared principles include respect for sovereignty and independence -- basically, people make their own decisions about their own country; other people don't make those decisions for them -- peaceful resolution of disputes without any coercion, free and fair trade and investment without practicing predatory economics against poorer countries trying to develop, adherence to the international rules and norms that have provided this region with unprecedented peace.

You want to set that here?  Okay -- provided the region with unprecedented peace overall, and prosperity for the last 70 years.  There's been wars out there, a lot of wars out there.  But they have not seen anything that could have been on the magnitude of what we finally resolved in 1945.  It could have been a lot worse.

These principles are underscored by America's respect for every state's sovereignty, regardless of their size.  So that's the framework.  So, when I land in Hawaii, I will be holding bilateral meetings with a number of our allies and partners out there.

And, at the change of command, I'll thank Admiral Harris for a job well done, as he transfers command to Admiral Davidson, one of our absolutely most experienced officers in the U.S. military.

It's our largest and oldest -- PACOM is our largest and oldest combatant command.  It stands watch over much of the earth's surface, and people -- Admiral -- Admiral Harris says, "From Hollywood to Bollywood, and from polar bears to penguins."  Kind of sums it up, you know?  You get the -- you get the idea.

But, in keeping with the National Defense Strategy's second line of effort at PACOM, I'll meet with the ministers of defense from Japan and Indonesia.  There's also other diplomats there, ambassadors, charges from their missions elsewhere.  So it'll be a good cross-pollination there.

The U.S.-Japan alliance remains the cornerstone for peace and security throughout the Indo-Pac region, and we always take advantage of any time we're in the same area to -- to link up, sit down and talk.

I hosted Minister Onodera just last month in Washington.  But it's a -- I don't know, it's probably the fifth or sixth time I've met with the Japanese minister of defense, and I think the fourth time I've met with Minister Onodera.  He came into office after I was already here.

With Indonesia, geographic and diplomatic fulcrum for the Into-Pacific, it stretches from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean -- I visited Jakarta in January, met with their -- their minister of defense several times, and hosted their foreign minister in March.  So I will meet with my counterpart, Minister Ryamizard, at PACOM while I'm in Hawaii here.

With both of them, I'll discuss the range of security issues, somewhat along the lines of what I did just discuss -- just discussed with you.  I'm always looking to gain their insight.  Relationships, of course, are a two-way street.  We don't take any of them for granted.  We can always learn from each other.

Let me just talk for a moment about the Middle East and what's going on there, as well.  We continue to press forward for the Geneva process in regards to Syria.  We have active dialogue going on right now with Turkey over the ISIS situation in northern Syria.  And that's being led, with our full support from DOD, by State Department. 

I think that I met -- I don't know – if it was last week or the week before -- with the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, a very experienced diplomat from the U.K.  He'd been assigned to the job, and he -- I've met with him, now, twice; talked with him on the phone, twice.  And he is meeting with the Saudis, the Houthis, the Emiratis as we try to put an end to what's going on down there. 

The threat to the Red Sea shipping was pretty obvious when you saw the tanker get hit by an Iranian-supplied missile -- to the Houthis.  So the implications of this are not -- are not insignificant if we don't get this under control. 

There's also -- I would just tell you -- a humanitarian catastrophe in that country that I've -- being addressed, as well, by the U.N. special envoy, with our full support and a lot of financial support from the Emiratis and from the Saudis, as well.  

Let me think.  I know we just -- let's just go to Q&A here, okay? 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, there's been a little uptick in tensions with China, with the -- disinviting them to the exercises, and also with the FONOP (freedom of navigation operation).  They seemed to react quite badly to the FONOP.  What message do you have to China as you go to Singapore?  There's usually a big audience there. 

SEC. MATTIS:  You know, I'm -- on the FONOPs, they're freedom of navigation operations.  And you'll notice there's only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them.  But it's international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation. 

So we'll continue that.  There had been a promise in 2015 by the -- President Xi, in the Rose Garden -- the White House meeting where he stated they would not be militarizing the Spratly Islands.  We have seen -- the last month, they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before. 

We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations.  That's the way we do business in the world.  But we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue, and part of this is we maintain a very transparent military activity out in the Pacific.  

We don't hide it from anyone.  We announce it through public affairs statements.  The nations, our partner and -- our partners and our allied nations, are very open about it.  So, when they do things that are opaque to the rest of us, then we cannot cooperate in areas that we would otherwise cooperate in.  

Yes.

Q:  (off mic) Lately you said they have militarized the Spratlys, parts of the Paracels.  Are you considering more robust action, other than FONOPs, sort of make sure that they don't militarize?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  Yes.  So I generally don't talk about future activities or actions.  Our diplomats are robustly engaged on this, and they are remaining so.  

And the concerns have come to me not just from American government circles, but also from foreign nations that are also concerned, very concerned, about this continuing militarization of features in the South China Sea.

What else is on your mind?

STAFF:  Anything on the record real quick?

Q:  Yes.  About a year ago, you laid out a plan for FONOPs, that they would be going regularly, at least, you know -- you know, more than in years past.  How is that going?  Are we still on an even trajectory to continue these FONOPs?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Yes.  There's a very -- a very steady drumbeat of freedom of navigation operations.  We're very open about them.  We report them.  So, yes, in a short answer.

STAFF:  We're going to switch off the record.